Ask An Expert: The True How-To On Brushing Your Teeth

Dear Dentist,

Once again I’ve had a disappointing dentist appointment. Even though I floss like I should, use the mouthwash my dentist recommends and brush two times a day, I still end up with new cavities. What am I doing wrong?

Cavity Calamity


Cavity Calamity,

I know the frustration you are feeling. I have patients come in my office all the time and tell me they are doing everything they can to care for their teeth, but they still end up with cavities. Most of the time, it’s not that they are missing something in their routine, but their method itself is the problem. There are a lot of misconceptions out there about the correct way to brush your teeth, but when you know the tried-and-true methods for fighting cavities, your dentist appointments will get a lot better.

Cavities themselves are the result of bacteria attacking the vulnerable surfaces of your teeth, both above and below the gumline. Keeping them at bay requires attention to detail.

The Right Tools for the Job

When looking for holes in your oral healthcare routine, the first thing you should look at is the tools you are using. Moving the brush in and around your mouth shouldn’t require a lot of effort. If it does, you might want to consider a brush with a smaller head. You want to be able to deftly maneuver your brush throughout your mouth. If the head is too big to make it into the tight spots in the back of your mouth, that might be part of your problem. Choosing a brush with bristles that are too stiff for comfort may also decrease effectiveness. Stiff bristles can damage your gums, which gives cavity-causing bacteria a pathway directly to the base of your teeth.

Consider the toothpaste you are using as well. If it is a tartar-control or whitening toothpaste, it may be too harsh for your teeth. While these may brighten your smile, they could also strip away the enamel that protects your teeth. Discuss the appropriate toothpaste for your smile with your dentist.

Method to the Madness

You’ve no doubt been brushing your teeth for a long time, and you have developed certain habits. Brushing at least twice a day is a good habit to have, but you might have picked up some bad ones along the way.

  • Don’t always start in the same place when brushing. If you do, you might unconsciously be short-changing another area.
  • Make sure you spend enough time brushing. Many patients insist that they are brushing twice a day, but if they don’t do so for long enough, it doesn’t matter how faithful they are.
  • Lots of people think the best time to brush is right after ingesting sugary snacks or drinks, but that can actually do more harm than good. Drinks with a high acid content soften tooth enamel. If you brush right after, the enamel is at its most vulnerable, and brushing immediately can wear away more enamel. Wait at least half an hour to be safe.

Brushing Tips for Success

Keeping your teeth in good health requires proper technique. Some tips to remember:

  • Keep your brush at a 45-degree angle to your teeth at all times.
  • Instead of wide strokes, use short, compact ones.
  • Don’t move the brush in a straight back-and-forth motion, which can damage your gumline. Instead, use an up-and-down motion.

By following these tips and replacing your toothbrush every three to four months, you should see increased success in the battle against cavities.